AUBURN — Lamey-Wellehan, the shoe company my dad started in 1914, has grown over the years with longtime employees who enjoyed their job and lived a good life. Their children were friends of mine growing up, and we were one community. We felt safe and welcome in each other’s neighborhoods and homes. That is a culture worth preserving.
It’s a culture that depends on people believing their hard work will bring good results for them and their loved ones.
Unfortunately, too much work goes unrewarded today. Our national minimum wage has been stuck since July 24, 2009, at $7.25 an hour — $15,080 a year — leaving many hardworking Americans in poverty even when they work full time. Our state minimum wage is a slightly higher, but still impoverishing, $7.50 an hour.
The typical CEO of a large company, on the other hand, saw their pay rise 16 percent last year to $15.1 million. That’s $1,724 for every hour of the year, including sleep.
Looking at the growing pay gap between workers and CEOs in the fast food industry, where minimum wage is common, Bloomberg reported, “The disparity has doubled at McDonald’s Corp. in the last 10 years. … At the same time, the company helped pay for lobbying against minimum-wage increases.”
They are lobbying against minimum wage increases although the minimum wage has lost more than 30 percent of its value since 1968, adjusted for inflation. Something is badly broken.
I grew up with the belief that America was committed to fairness, a degree of equality that gave all the chance of success if they worked hard. We might not start out the same, but all would have education available and would share in the rewards of economic growth. And all workers, even the lowest-paid, would earn enough to buy necessities like food, shelter, heat and clothing.
We still value that at Lamey-Wellehan and our six shoe stores. Our lowest wage is $8.50 plus commission, so no one earns under $10 an hour and nearly all earn at least $12 and up. We also provide health benefits and a 401(k) with company match. We have low employee turnover, and workers who enjoy studying to learn more about foot health and how they can help our customers.
Paying fair wages has helped us succeed where others failed. The customer satisfaction that depends a lot on our employees has helped us win shoe industry awards like Retailer of the Year.
The minimum wage sets a floor under worker wages, and worker wages, in turn, supply the consumer purchasing power that is vital to small business and makes up most of our economy. Raising the minimum wage will help our economy, not hurt it.
There’s a proposal in Congress to raise the minimum wage gradually over three years to $10.10 with three increases of 95 cents a year. After that, the minimum wage would be adjusted annually for inflation so it doesn’t again fall behind the cost of living.
As a small-business owner, I know businesses large and small can afford that. If everyone earned a minimum wage of more than $9 or $10 an hour, everything from local businesses to local schools would do better.
Our tax base would be sounder and our social safety net less stressed. We’d be able to invest more in public education and infrastructure, fewer people would lose their homes and more children would be able to succeed.
We have a country with a great deal of decaying infrastructure and people who don’t feel valued at work, with hopes that are being constantly reduced. It is not the world I was born into, nor is it the type of world I want to leave my grandchildren.
There is so much we need to do. We need a work force with hope and the drive that goes with it. We need to rebuild our sense of community, our common purpose and our belief in the American way. We will all suffer terribly if we continue down the path of decaying neighborhoods and gated communities.
It’s time for Congress to raise the minimum wage. Our communities can wait no longer.
Jim Wellehan is owner and president of Lamey-Wellehan Shoes, based in Auburn.